Is this the year Major League Baseball's model for small-market franchises that remain competitive despite their financial limitations can finally take that long-awaited next step forward?
The 2014 A's bring back largely the same core that finished second in the American League with 96 victories last season, which ended with a narrow loss to the bigger-spending Detroit Tigers in the Divisional round for a second straight year. Of the few changes, reliable closer Grant Balfour has been replaced by two-time AL saves leader Jim Johnson, Scott Kazmir takes departed staff ace Bartolo Colon's rotation spot after resurrecting a career on the brink of extinction in Cleveland, and Beane flipped designated hitter Seth Smith for one of the game's better set-up men in Luke Gregerson.
Oakland appears to have all the pieces in place to once again challenge for AL supremacy. The retooled bullpen should be terrific, and there's plenty of firepower from an offense that returns its nucleus of 2013 breakout star Josh Donaldson, sluggers Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick and sparkplug center fielder Coco Crisp, signed to a two-year extension in February. Unheralded manager Bob Melvin has been masterful at utilizing a deep bench to create favorable matchups and keep his players fresh, and the rotation sports a potential true top-tier option in talented youngster Sonny Gray.
Still, the spring has brought about more challenges to Beane, who's been able to maintain a consistent contender despite operating on a shoestring budget, and Melvin. Jarrod Parker, expected to step into Colon's former role as the No. 1 starter, tore a ligament in his elbow and is done for the season. A.J. Griffin, a 14-game winner last year, won't be available until at least late April after developing elbow soreness.
Though there are serviceable alternatives on hand to allow the rotation to remain a relative strength, the injuries figure to present another tough test for Oakland's crafty management team.
2013 FINISH (96-66) - First Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Scott Kazmir (LHP), Jim Johnson (RHP), Nick Punto (INF), Craig Gentry (OF), Luke Gregerson (RHP), Eric O'Flaherty (LHP), Fernando Abad (LHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Seth Smith (OF/DH), Bartolo Colon (RHP), Grant Balfour (RHP), Kurt Suzuki (C), Chris Young (OF), Jerry Blevins (LHP), Pat Neshek (RHP), Brett Anderson (LHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Coco Crisp (CF), John Jaso (C), Jed Lowrie (SS), Brandon Moss (DH), Yoenis Cespedes (LF), Josh Reddick (RF), Josh Donaldson (3B), Daric Barton (1B), Eric Sogard (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Sonny Gray (RHP), Scott Kazmir (LHP), A.J. Griffin (RHP), Dan Straily (RHP), Tommy Milone (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jim Johnson (RHP)
MANAGER: Bob Melvin
WILL THE KIDS BE ALRIGHT?
Oakland had entered the spring boasting enviable depth among its starting pitchers, with Tommy Milone -- who's won 25 games over the past two years -- initially ticketed for either Triple A or long relief duties behind a projected top five of Parker, Gray, Kazmir, Griffin and Dan Straily. Parker's injury now eliminates that luxury, while Griffin's current elbow troubles are concerning and Kazmir's been plagued by arm issues in the past. Either journeyman Jesse Chavez or former Indians and Rockies prospect Drew Pomeranz will attempt to hold down one spot until Griffin returns, but only two of Chavez's 191 career appearances have been starts and Pomeranz owns an ugly 4-14 record and 5.15 ERA at the big league level.
Colon and Parker produced 46 quality starts between them during last year's AL West title run, and that consistency will be missed. The Athletics are counting on Gray, who showed big-time stuff and competitiveness in twice going toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander in the ALDS, to help fill that void. While the 24-year-old's upside is tremendous, keep in mind he still has only 12 starts and 77 innings under his belt in the majors.
WHICH JIM JOHNSON ARE THE A'S GETTING?
Balfour was a huge part of the A's success in 2013, and not just for the fiery Australian's ultra-competitive demeanor that rubbed off on many of his overachieving teammates. He didn't blow a save opportunity until late July and failed to protect a ninth-inning lead only three times over the course of the season. Johnson was arguably the best closer in baseball two years ago, topping the majors with 51 saves in 54 chances with the Orioles, but blew more games (9) than any reliever while taking a slight step back in 2013. Of perhaps greater concern, he's an extreme ground-ball pitcher who will have an inferior defense behind him in Oakland compared to the one in Baltimore.
By nabbing Gregerson, highly effective in an eighth-inning role with San Diego the past four years, Oakland does have a fall-back plan in case Johnson falters or is traded at midseason (both are free agents in 2015). Holdover Ryan Cook has closing experience as well, so Melvin won't be at a lack for options at the back end. But if Johnson can regain his dominant 2012 form, it could mean the difference between the franchise's first AL pennant since 1990 and another early postseason exit, or even a playoff near-miss.
FOOL'S (GREEN AND) GOLD?
The 2013 A's exceeded expectations in large part to a number of players doing so on the offensive side. Donaldson entered the season as a fringe major leaguer and ended it as a legitimate MVP candidate, while Moss -- cast aside by three other organizations before landing in Oakland -- came out of nowhere to swat 30 homers at age 30. Both really struggled in the playoff series against Detroit, however, raising at least some skepticism as to whether they can sustain those high levels of production. Crisp's 22 homers and 93 runs scored were more than any of his previous 11 seasons, so it's fair to question if he can keep up that pace as well.
If all three can deliver similar numbers, Oakland stands a more than reasonable chance of placing in the top three in the AL in homers and runs scored for a second straight year. If not, a middle-of-the-pack finish in both categories like the 2012 A's put forth seems more appropriate.
X-FACTOR: JOSH REDDICK
Any possible drop-off from Donaldson, Moss or Crisp could be offset if Reddick bounces back from an injury-riddled and disappointing last season. The power- hitting right fielder established team bests of 32 homers and 85 RBI during a breakthrough 2012 campaign, but mustered only 12 long balls while hampered by a sprained right wrist for a significant portion of last year. He underwent surgery to correct the problem during the offseason and has put together a solid spring, giving indications he could be primed for a rebound and can add another impact bat to a potentially dangerous lineup.
Though the A's may lack the star power that most of the presumed AL contenders possess, dismiss them at your own risk. As the past two seasons have proven, this is a team that's better than the sum of its parts with a knack for maximizing its available resources, and it's not as if the talent level is bare. The bullpen may be the best in baseball, the offense has punch and the rotation, while weakened some by the injuries of the spring, is still pretty solid from top to bottom. Oakland likely isn't going to repeat its 96-win total from a year ago, but Melvin and Beane will have the A's once again in the playoff hunt come September.